The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.
The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins in a couple weeks with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’ll feature 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names. Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.
The countdown continues with one of Virginia’s most explosive players, wide receiver Tavares Kelly, who comes in at No. 7 after he proved to be the star of last fall’s freshman class. Just like when he suited up for one of the top high school programs in Florida, he lined up at wide receiver, earned a few carries and returned punts and kicks.
He is a carbon copy of former UVa slot receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, and Kelly will get the first shot this season at replacing last season’s leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Virginia’s coaches are hoping his speed translates into a few more big plays, and he’ll be in the running to open the season as the Cavaliers’ primary punt returner.
Tale of the tape
» Height: 5-8
» Weight: 160
» Hometown: Miami, Florida
» Last season: Kelly was one of 13 true freshmen to see playing time. He made his first career start against North Carolina and tied his season-high with three receptions. He finished his first season on Grounds with 10 catches for 121 yards, six carries for 21 yards and 193 return yards.
» Depth at the position: Kelly is going to get the first shot at replacing Zaccheaus in the slot. The speed he put on display last season and the growth he showed as a route runner have all but assured him of that. It also doesn’t hurt that fellow second-year Billy Kemp – who is similar to Kelly in stature and speed – suffered an injury before the spring game that will keep him out until the opening weeks of fall camp. Graduate transfer Dejon Brissett has the experience and runs crisp enough routes to operate out of the slot, and speedy freshman Seneca Milledge is a dark horse candidate.
» Number to know: 21. Kelly attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where in 2018, his senior class sent 21 football players to college on scholarships.
» Outlook: Kelly has the kind of speed that allows him to do special things with the ball in space, and the Cavaliers need him to emerge this season as a threat to score whenever he touches it. Whether it’s a screen pass, deep route or handoff, Virginia’s coaches are going to find ways to better exploit his speed. Kelly will also take on a large role once again on special teams. Though no one ran away with the job last fall, he wasn’t far from taking a couple of punts to the house, and he’ll enter camp again this fall as one of UVa’s top two punt returners. Kemp, Brissett and Chuck Davis should also be in line to return punts.
The end zone
There’s an image from last fall’s regular-season finale at Virginia Tech that has to be etched on Kelly’s subconscious. It’s late in the first quarter of a scoreless game, and Kelly is in the slot when a play-action pass is called. The action in the backfield and a little stutter step froze his man and Kelly is all alone down the seam. By the time the pass is thrown, there isn’t a defender within 10 yards of him. It’s a little underthrown and he can’t bring it in.
That was one of Kelly’s several flirtations with the end zone. He hauled in a25-yard pass at Louisville but needed to break one more tackle to get to pay dirt. At Duke, he returned a punt 43 yards but was denied points by a shoestring tackle. Kelly finished the season without a touchdown, but this fall, he’s sure to get plenty of shots to cross the goal line because the Cavaliers need his speed on the field, even if for no other reason than to open things up for dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins.
There aren’t many high schools in the nation that have pumped out more famous athletes than St. Thomas Aquinas. Sanya Richards-Ross won gold in the 400-meter dash at the 2012 Olympics, and tennis player Chris Evert reached a No. 1 ranking in the world.
When it comes to football players alone, the school has produced a who’s who of gridiron greats. Topping that list is NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. He’s joined by Chargers defensive lineman Joey Bosa, former Bears and Buccaneers safety Major Wright, Bengals running back Giovanni Bernard, Raiders safety LaMarcus Joyner, former Redskins wide receiver Leonard Hankerson and former Ravens linebacker Tavares Gooden to name a few.
Kelly was part of two state championship teams at St. Thomas Aquinas, which also won one the year before he got there. As a senior in the talent-rich Miami area, he racked up 1,294 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns while playing wide receiver and running back and returning kicks and punts.